Sie sind auf Seite 1von 4

Glider Design

Gliders are airplanes that do not have engines.

Because of this, they must either be towed up into the air by a normal airplane, or be launched from higher than the place where they
land. Once they’re in the air on their own, they must descend. Above all else, they must descend SLOWLY. This means gliders are
designed very carefully, and differently from powered airplanes. Today you will learn why, and will design and build a glider. It must
pop a balloon when launched from across the room. How do you design a glider so that it flies well?

Some examples of “real” gliders:

A Sailplane: A Hang-Glider:

The Space Shuttle: A glider used to transport troops in World War 2:

The SWIFT, a tail-less glider

One of the Wright Brothers’ Gliders designed at Stanford:
from which they developed the Flyer:


(To see more pictures and information about little-known cool and unusual aircraft
from throughout the history of aviation – visit
As many of you probably know, the four forces that act on a conventional airplane are these:

The lift (made by the wings) pulls the plane up, keeping it in the air,
fighting (and balancing out) the weight. The thrust (made by the
engine) pulls/pushes a plane forwards, fighting (and balancing) the
drag (air resistance). If there is more drag than thrust, the plane slows
down. If there is more thrust than drag, the plane speeds up. If there is
more lift than weight, the plane climbs. If there is more weight than
lift, the plane descends.

Now, gliders don’t have an engine, so how do they fly forwards at all?

They point a little bit downwards, so they use some of their weight as thrust:

(The picture on the far right is from the point of view

of the glider pilot – Lift is up, drag points back, and
weight is down and to the front)

This forwards component of the weight, used as

“thrust”, is therefore what overcomes the air
resistance, and the rest of the weight is overcome by
the lift.

Now, what this means is: The more drag there is on a

glider, the more it must point downwards (so that
more of the weight is “forwards”, used as thrust to
overcome drag), and the steeper its flight will be. And
similarly, the less lift a glider has, the more it must
point downwards, and the steeper its flight will be.

The picture to the right should illustrate this. The upper “reflection” of the weight must
go as far back (from the glider’s point of view) as the drag, and as far up as the lift. So, as
you can see in the diagrams below, the more lift and the least drag, the more vertical the
lift becomes, and the more horizontal the drag – and the glider’s direction – become.

(Mathematically, this is
because, if the weight is
overcome by the lift and the
drag, then they must all fit
in a Parallelogram Of Vectors; a tilted rectangle with the lift
and drag as two sides, and the weight (always vertical) as the
rectangle’s diagonal. The smaller the drag is, relative to the
lift, the skinnier and more upright (less tilted) the rectangle
is, and (since the drag is parallel to the direction of flight) the
more horizontal the flight can be).

So, as you can see in the diagrams to the left: Low

Lift-To-Drag ratio means steeply downwards gliding. High
Lift-To-Drag Ratio means more level (horizontal) gliding.
The Glide Ratio is how many feet the glider moves
forward for every foot it descends – in other words, how
steep its descent is. By the rectangles above, you can see this
is equal to the Lift-To-Drag Ratio. (If you know your trig: The angle of glide must therefore equal the arctangent of
Well-designed gliders have Glide Ratios (and thus Lift-To-Drag ratios) of over 30, some as high as 60.

(To learn more about glide ratio, lift-to-drag ratio, thrust-to-weight ratio, and how cruise speeds and altitudes are found to optimize efficiency, visit
Therefore, from the previous page you can see that the only things important in designing a glider (if you want it to glide
really far) are maximum lift and minimum drag, if what you want is a large Glide Ratio – a glider that can fly
almost horizontally, and thus stay in the air for a long time and travel very far.
How do you design a glider like that?

For maximum lift, you need big wings (you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure
that one out). Lots of wing area. A biplane is not out of the question (although those tend to be
draggier; see below).
Wings with flaps and curved tops generate more lift (but are harder to make using just flat
sheets of foam); To the right is an example of such a wing, as seen from below the left wingtip:

Minimum drag is more complicated, because drag is caused by a lot of different

phenomena: One is the wake of the glider that comes from its friction with the air that
touches it. Two ways to minimize this are to keep the area small (except for the wings, of
course). In other words, use little material. Another key thing to keep the wake small
is to try and minimize your frontal cross-section. This just means that, when you
look at your glider from the front, you should not see a lot of stuff, because any stuff you
see will be rubbing against air and being pushed back by air. In other words, out of the
two gliders on the left, the top one is probably less draggy than the bottom one.

(1): .. (2):

Wingtip Vortices are the other major source of drag, besides

friction with the air. To keep wingtip vortices from getting too intense,
your airplane needs what are called high-aspect-ratio wings. This
just means long, thin wings. So of the two gliders on the right, the first
glider (1) has higher-aspect-ratio wings than the second glider (2), so the
wingtip vortices on the first glider are less intense, so it’s probably less
draggy, and thus glides farther, than the second glider.

Fighter jets, with their low-aspect-ratio wings (made for tight turns and
supersonic speeds), get most of their drag (when subsonic) from
wingtip vortices. The Lift-to-Drag ratio of the F-15 and of the F-22
(seen to the right and below) is about 1 or 2, a far cry from a good
glider’s 20 or 30. Those low-aspect-ratio wings generate wingtip
vortices so strong, they condense the moisture in the air and become
visible (as thin white smoky lines). So if you’re in an F-22 and your
engines quit, you better be very close to an airfield, because you’re not
going to glide very far.

Other things, such as winglets and tapered wings (see outline below),
not only reduce wingtip-vortex drag but also look really cool.

(To learn about how and why these features increase lift and reduce drag, visit
Another thing that is very important is balance. Your glider’s wings generate lift, and in a way so does its tail. But the
weight of the glider pulls it in a certain place called the center of gravity. If the center of gravity is too far ahead of
the wings, the glider will nose-dive as soon as you let go. If the CG is too far behind the wings, the glider will go nose up,
slow down, lose all its speed, and stall. And obviously, if your weight is more to the right or more to the left, the glider
will turn that way.

So you want the CG near the wings and right in the middle. I gave you some modeling clay, for balance: If you make the
glider out of foam and put the clay where you want the CG to be, you’ll probably be fine.

Don’t forget to test-fly it before the

competition! If it noses up and then
drops, move the CG forwards! If it
nosedives, move the CG back!

The last important thing to optimize is stability. You want your glider to fly in a straight line, and to correct its flight
path if for some reason it starts turning. This is what the tail is for. If the plane turns up or down or to the side, the tail is
“blown back” by the air, making the glider face forwards again.

The further forwards the CG is, the more effective the tail is. Also remember that a tail means more surface area which
means more drag, so the further forward the CG is, the smaller a tail you need, and the less drag you will have (and the
more horizontal the flight will be). So it’s worth trying to get the CG a bit ahead of the wings (and tilting the horizontal
tail down, to keep the nose from going up) for best stability (because then the wings are behind the CG and thus act as a
tail), although this will be more difficult to balance. It’s up to you. However, if your CG is ahead of the wing and the tail
is pushing down, then the wings have to work harder to push up to make up for it, and your plane is a little less
efficient/more draggy, although it is more stable. This tradeoff – between stability, balance and drag – is made differently
by different airplane designers in different airplanes for many different reasons. Again, the choice is up to you – but the
most popular solution is below:

Above, left: A free-body diagram of a typical stable airplane’s weight and lift forces. The down-pushing tail (which balances the plane, since the CG is far forward)
makes the plane draggier but more stable. Above center and to the right: The Boeing 737 and the Airbus 320. Notice the Airbus has wings nearer the front, and the
Boeing nearer the back. The CG is farther back on the Airbus than on the Boeing, so the Airbus would tend to go nose-up if not for the tail. Therefore, its tail must be
pushing up for more lift, making the wings have to work less hard, and so the whole design is more efficient but less stable. This is OK, because a computer controls the
aircraft. Boeing, not quite willing to turn over full authority of the controls to a computer, stuck with a stable design, with the wings further back and the tail pushing
down instead of up (like on the diagram above and to the left). The Boeing’s wings have to work harder, and the plane is just a tad less efficient (more draggy), but at
least it can easily fly in a straight line without computer controls. This is an example of different aircraft designers making different choices in the compromises
between drag (efficiency) and stability. The Airbus would glide better, but might not be safely flyable without computer aid.

One last tip about stability: To keep your airplane from rolling to the
left or to the right as it flies, have the wings be in a “dihedral”, or
slight upwards V shape – That is, have the wingtips be a little higher
than the wing roots, as shown in this image, as seen from the nose:

(For more information about why airplanes are designed the way they are – with tons of pictures and examples, and cool unusual aircraft – visit